In recent years the numbers of unaccompanied children (UC) migrating to the U.S. has increased substantially, particularly from Central American countries such as El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala (i.e., “Northern Triangle”). Yet, research about how these children function after migration, particularly for those placed in foster care, is in a nascent stage. Based on life course and resilience theories, this exploratory study seeks to address the following research questions: (1) To what extent is a history of child maltreatment prior to migration associated with externalized behavior of UC in foster care? (2) To what extent does externalizing behavior differ for children by country of origin?
This secondary analysis is based on administrative data collected by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. The sample includes 201 unaccompanied children (75.42% male) exiting long term foster care in the US in 2015. A total of 14 countries are represented, 71.26% from Northern Triangle countries. The dependent variable – externalized behavior – is measured by a count of significant incident reports a child received while in foster care related to behaviors such as physical aggression, verbal aggression, and running away from placement. Independent variables include age at discharge (years), gender (1=male), length of stay in care (months), history of maltreatment (1= yes), and country of origin (dummy variables for El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, respectively, vs. other). Bivariate analyses include chi-square and independent samples t-tests. Negative binomial regression models were employed to assess the association between covariates and UC’s externalized behaviors.
Univariate statistics indicated the mean length of stay in care was 9.42 months. Nearly one quarter of the sample (24.82%) experienced a history of child maltreatment. Bivariate analyses indicated that UC who experienced maltreatment prior to migration exhibited higher rates of externalized behavior (M=0.710, SD=0.455) compared to no history of maltreatment (M=0.545, SD=4.498) (p<.001). No significant associations were found based on country of origin. Multivariate analyses revealed that males displayed higher rates of externalizing behaviors while in care (p<.000), and UC from Guatemala displayed lower rates of externalizing behaviors (p<.05).
Conclusions & Implications
In one of the first studies of its kind, our results were congruent with existing research related to domestic foster care in that male children showed significantly higher rates of externalized behavior. Implications of the study include highlighting the importance of practitioners screening UC for risk factors associated with externalized behavior, including gender and country of origin. Future research should build on these findings by examining the impact of specific types of child maltreatment and other maltreatment factors (e.g., duration, frequency, severity) on externalized behavior. Future research should also examine possible protective factors that mitigate externalized behavior, including family support and legal status.